The Lord of the Sabbath
“At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day. But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple. But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day. And when he was departed thence, he went into their synagogue: And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him. And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days. Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other. Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him.”
The subject which stands out preeminently in these fourteen verses is that of the sabbath day. It is a subject about which the Jews of our Lord’s day were very sensitive and held many strange and absurd opinions. Many today are just as sensitive as they were and hold opinions just as bizarre as theirs. The Pharisees had added their traditions to the teachings of Scripture and made Sabbath day observance the control and primary part of their religious legalism, as it is unto this day. This is a subject about which many, throughout the history of the church, have held different opinions, and held them very strongly, even to the point of having no fellowship with those who disagreed with them. This is a subject about which we need to have a clear understanding.
When our Lord’s disciples began to pick corn and eat it, as they walked through the fields, the Pharisees became enraged. When they did, the Lord Jesus seized the opportunity to give words of clear instruction regarding the sabbath, himself, and the uselessness of legalistic, graceless religion. In these fourteen verses our Savior shows himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath.
The Fallacy of the Pharisees
“At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.” (vv. 1-2)
Sabbath observance was the very heart of Jewish religion. When the Lord Jesus gave tacit approval to what the Jews considered a violation of sabbatical law, he touched a raw nerve. Several things need to be observed here.
Our Savior never violated God’s law regarding the Sabbath, or anything else. He perfectly fulfilled the law. Our Lord’s disciples here violated Jewish tradition, not Mosaic law. People were allowed by law to take ears of corn as they walked through the fields. The objection of the Pharisees was to the Lord’s disciples doing so on the sabbath day. To their hypercritical minds plucking was reaping, and rubbing the grain from the husk was threshing.
They regarded their customs and traditions and fancies as a code of law. According to their traditions, the disciples were doing “that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.” It is not insignificant to take notice of the fact that our Lord and his disciples were poor men, and that he who fed the multitudes used no miraculous power to feed his own followers. They were compelled to get a little food for their stomachs the way other poor people would, by walking through fields belonging to others and picking corn. The Son of God bribes none into following him with the promise of wealth.
This incident was not accidental. The words “at that time” direct our attention to the preceding verses. Our Lord is about to demonstrate that he is the Sabbath in whom sinners find rest for their souls (11:28-30).
The word “sabbath” has the idea of ceasing from work, rest, and inactivity (Gen. 2:2-3; Ex. 20:9-11). Like all other aspects of Old Testament law, the sabbath was a picture of Christ, and pointed men to him in whom we find rest (Heb. 4:1-10).
The fallacy of the Pharisees here was the same as it is now. They made the Word of God of none effect by their traditions (Mt. 15:6). The Old Testament law was still in affect when our Lord began his ministry. He and his disciples honored the law. But this breach of religious tradition, the Pharisees considered a breach of God’s law. We are told that just one section of the Jewish Talmud contains twenty-four chapters of sabbatical laws!
Instead of being a day of rest, the sabbath had become a day of incredible burden because of all the man-made restrictions imposed by the rabbis in the name of God. As one man observed, “It was harder to rest on the sabbath than it was to work the other six days of the week.” The sabbath was anything but a day of rest. It had become a day of frustration, anxiety, fear, and religious manipulation, imposed by ungodly, religious legalists, who had made the people “Weary and heavy-laden” (Matt. 11:28). The Lord’s disciples were not reaping on the sabbath. They were simply eating as they walked. But the Talmud (the written traditions of the Jews) forbade the rubbing of corn on the sabbath!
The Significance of the Sabbath
“But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple. But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day” (vv. 3-8).
In these verses our Lord Jesus shows how contemptuous he was of the Pharisees and their religious traditions. His questions (vv. 3 and 5) are scathingly sarcastic! They cut deep into the Pharisees’ pride. One can almost see them evincing with pain and anger.
Like the other commandments, the sabbath day was intended to promote love to God and to one another. But the scribes and Pharisees knew nothing of love. These legalists lived only to fulfill lifeless, loveless duties, which made them feel good about themselves.
The laws regarding the sabbath were never intended to restrict deeds of necessity (vv. 3-4; 1 Sam. 21:6), restrict service to God (vv. 5-6), or restrict acts of mercy (vv. 7-8). We should always choose mercy and compassion when there is a question between that and dogma, ritual, and religious ceremony (v. 7).
In verses 6 and 8 our Savior, the Son of Man, claims divinity, supremacy, and sovereignty as he who is greater than the temple and “Lord even of the sabbath.” He is Lord of everything, even of the law and all that concerns God and man. As the Son of Man, our divine Mediator, into whose hands the Father has delivered all things (Matt. 11:27), he arranges and disposes of sabbaths as he pleases. He declares that even in the legal dispensation the sabbath was not profaned by works of necessity, devotion, and mercy. Certainly, in this gospel day we should never pay the least measure of attention to the sharp speeches of hypercritical legalists who strain the sabbatical law and make a yoke of bondage of that which was intended to point us to the holy rest of faith in Christ.
The Manifestation of Mercy
“And when he was departed thence, he went into their synagogue: And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him. And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days. Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other” (vv. 9-13).
The Lord Jesus showed great honor to the matter of public worship (v. 9; Heb. 10:25). He had nothing to gain from it and nothing to learn by it; and synagogue worship was a perverted form of worship. Yet, our Lord attended the worship of God for the glory of God and the benefit of others. If our Savior made it his business to be in the house of God on the appointed day of worship, how dare we neglect this blessed ordinance of our God?
The Pharisees sought to entrap the Master (v. 10). They chose a man whose hand was withered, not one who was dying. Then, they raised a question, not to learn, but to accuse. “They asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him.” Such behavior is common among religious legalists. They constantly seek to entrap, that they might accuse and condemn.
The Lord Jesus shamed the Pharisees into silence (vv. 11-12). Not even a Pharisee would contend that sheep are more valuable than men, who are created in the image of God. Yet, in practice they treated other men with less respect than they did brute beasts in the name of religion. Our Lord answered their question emphatically by asking them, “It is lawful to do well on sabbath days?” Then, he showed himself to be God by an act of omnipotent mercy. — “Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.”
There are important spiritual lessons to be gleaned from this incident. This man with a withered hand was found in the house of God. Though his hand was withered, he came to the place where God promised to meet with men. He was found waiting on the Lord in the place of the Lord’s own appointing. There is no indication that he knew the Lord Jesus, much less that he sought his merciful intervention. Prevenient grace put him in the way of grace. The Lord Jesus knew this poor man was in the synagogue. And he, of whom it is written that “he must needs go through Samaria,” because there was a poor woman there for whom “the time of love” had come (John 4:4), went to this particular synagogue on this particular sabbath day, because “the time of love” had come for this poor man with a withered hand. Here our Savior had come to fulfil his own words, “I am found of them that sought we not” (Isa. 65:1).
With the command of grace, “Stretch forth thine hand,” came the power of grace to obey the command. “Christ’s biddings are enablings” (Robert Hawker). It was impossible for this man to do what the Master here called him to do. Yet, he did it, because he who called him is God with whom all things are possible. So it is with the call of Christ by his Spirit to poor sinners. When he says to those who cannot and will not come to him, “ Come unto me,” they come to him, being enabled and compelled by omnipotent mercy to obey his call. Did he not mysteriously and secretly communicate the ability to obey, none ever could or would obey his call. This blessed truth applies to every aspect of our lives. Without him we can do nothing (John 15:5). Yet, because it is God who works in us to will and to do of his own good pleasure, when he bids us work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 2:12-13; 4:13). The same grace that calls gives ability to obey.
The Rage of The Religionists
“Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him” (v. 14). — Mark tells us (Mk. 3:6) that these Pharisees joined forces with the Herodians, their archenemies, the worldly political party who supported Herod, to destroy Christ. They were determined to rid the world of him at any cost. Why? ¾ Because he exposed their inward emptiness and sin. He denounced their outward religious rituals. He disregarded the traditions of their fathers. And he taught salvation by grace alone!
Legalism is the implacable enemy of grace (Gal. 3:3; 5:2-4). There is no room for sabbath keeping in this dispensation of grace. Christ is our Sabbath (Col. 2:16-17). Christians have, since the earliest days of church history (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), set aside Sunday, the first day of the week, as a special day of worship, fellowship, and divine service, because that is the day our Lord was raised. John called it “The Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10); but it is not, in any way, a “Christian sabbath.”
Christ our Sabbath
Allow me to conclude this study by giving that which I believe to be the clear teaching of Holy Scripture with regard to sabbath keeping. I do so because multitudes are yet in bondage to the law here who have no reason to be. In Isaiah 58:13 the Lord God tells us to “call the sabbath a delight.”
When can we, when do we, “Call the sabbath a delight”? — We can and do call the sabbath a delight only when we are brought to the blessed rest of faith in Christ, who is our Sabbath, when we keep the sabbath of faith, ceasing from our own works and resting in Christ alone for our entire acceptance with God.
When a person turns from his way, from his sin, from the pleasure of his depraved heart, and from this world to the Lord Jesus Christ, finding rest in him, he finds that Christ, in whom he rests, is a delight, a luxury, and that faith in him is an honor. Indeed, all who trust Christ delight themselves in him, triumph over all their foes in him, and shall at last obtain the full heritage of the heavenly Canaan called, “the heritage of Jacob.” “For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
The Legal Sabbath
We need to understand that the Sabbath, which God required the Jews to keep, was only a temporary, typical ordinance, which represented Christ and our redemption by him. When the Lord God instituted sabbath keeping to the Jews in the legal dispensation, he gave two reasons for it.
First, the sabbath was to be kept as a symbol of God’s rest (Ex. 20:8-11). It represented the completion of God’s creation and the satisfaction of God in his work. Though God’s work of creation has been marred by the sin and fall of our race, the sabbath day portrayed a blessed day of glorious rest called “the times of restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21; Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:10), when all things shall be restored to God.
Second, the sabbath day was a constant reminder of Israel’s redemption out of Egypt. Hence, it was a picture of our redemption by Christ (Deut. 5:15). In other words, the sabbath day, like all other aspects of the Mosaic law, was a picture prophecy of our perfect redemption by Christ. As the Jews rested on the seventh day of the week from all their works, so believers find perfect rest and peace in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christ Our Sabbath
We can and will call the sabbath a delight only when we understand that Christ is our Sabbath. We do not observe a literal, legal sabbath day, because Christ is our Sabbath, and we rest in him. I know many who pretend to keep a literal sabbath day. Many try their best to delight in legal sabbath work. But I do not know a sabbatarian in the world who really delights in his attempts at sabbath keeping, not a single one. Every sabbatarian I know finds the yoke of their legal observance oppressive and galling. It is a spiritual flagellation they feel they must perform in order to be holy.
Sabbath keeping, like animal sacrifices, was a part of the Old Testament law. It has nothing to do with New Testament worship. I know that the sabbath day is frequently mentioned in the four gospels and the Book of Acts during that transitional period in which the church of God passed from the Old Testament era into the New. However, it is always mentioned in connection with the Jews and Jewish worship in the temple, or in their synagogues. But it is mentioned only two times in all the Epistles (Romans through Revelation).
In Colossians 2:16-17 we read, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” Here the apostle Paul forbids the observance of legal sabbath days in any form. He does so on the basis of the fact, that in Christ, God’s elect are entirely free from the law (Rom. 7:4; 10:4).
In Hebrews 4:3-4, 9-11 the sabbath that remains in this gospel age is called “rest.” Here the Apostle shows us that all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ keep the sabbath in a spiritual way. That is to say, they, and they only truly keep the sabbath by faith in him, by resting in him.
We can and will call the sabbath a delight when we realize that our all glorious Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, our Mediator, has entered into his rest, and his rest is glorious, because he has finished his work (Heb. 4:10; Isa. 11:10). Our Savior’s rest in heaven is glorious and it is his glory. — “His rest shall be glory!” As God rested on the seventh day, because his work of creation was finished, so the God-man our Mediator has entered into his rest in heaven, because he has made all things new for his people, having finished his work of redemption (Rom. 8:34; 2 Cor. 5:17-21; Heb. 10:10-14).
Behold our exalted Savior! Do you see him seated upon his throne in heaven? There he sits in undisturbed and undisturbable sovereign serenity! His rest is his glory (John 17:2; Phil. 2:9-11). That exalted God-man, as our divinely appointed Representative, has fulfilled all the legal sabbath requirements for us, even as he did all the other requirements of the law. Now, in heaven, he is keeping an everlasting sabbath rest (Isa. 53:10-12). And his rest, which is his glory, tells us that he has finished his work (John 17:4; 19:30), the salvation of his people is certain (Heb. 9:12), and all his enemies shall soon be made his footstool (Heb. 10:13). There is no more work to be done. Christ did it all! And when all the work was done for us, our blessed Savior entered into his rest. Now, all who find rest in him call that sabbath a delight.
All who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ keep the sabbath by faith (Heb. 4:3), because we have entered into his rest; and we call this blessed sabbath rest of faith in Christ a delight, the delight of our souls. We do not yet keep the sabbath perfectly, because we do not yet trust our Savior as we should. We do not yet trust him perfectly. But we do keep the sabbath truly and sincerely by faith. Our sabbath observance is not a carnal, literal thing. We do not keep a sabbath day. God forbids that (Col. 2:16-17). We keep the sabbath spiritually by faith.
Remember, the sabbath day was ordained by God in the ceremonial worship of the Jews in the Old Testament as a symbol of God’s rest after creation and as a reminder of the Jews redemption out of Egypt. The essence of sabbath observation was self-denial and consecration to God. Anything personally profitable or pleasurable was expressly forbidden (Isa. 56:2; 58:13; Ezek. 20:12, 21). Sabbath observance was, in its essence, an unconditional, all-encompassing, self-denial. It was a renunciation of self and a dedication of one’s self to God. That is exactly the way we observe the sabbath spiritually by faith in Christ, not one day in seven, but all the days of our lives. The believer’s life is a perpetual keeping of the sabbath!
The Lord Jesus Christ gives rest to every sinner who comes to him in faith. He says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Are you laboring and heavy-laden under the load of sin and guilt? Do you long for rest? In your inmost soul do you struggle hard with sin, longing to find peace with God? Will you hear what the Lord Jesus says? “Come” — That is: believe, trust, rely upon me. “Come unto me!” — Not to the preacher. Not to my church. Not even to my doctrine. But “Come unto me, and I will give you rest!” When a sinner comes to Christ, he quits working for God’s favor, because he rests his soul upon the finished work of his Substitute (1 Cor. 1:30-31).
Yet, this sabbath of faith involves more than a ceasing from our works and the remembrance of our redemption by Christ. It also involves, in its very essence, the consecration of our lives to our dear Savior (Matt. 11:29-30). We keep the sabbath of faith and find rest unto our souls as we willfully, deliberately, wholeheartedly surrender to Christ as our Lord. If we would keep the sabbath, truly keep the sabbath, it will take considerably more than going to church on Sunday and reserving one day a week for religious exercises! We keep the sabbath by putting ourselves under the yoke of Christ’s dominion, submitting to his will in all things, learning of him what to believe, how to live, and how to honor God. As we do, we find that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. When we submit to Christ’s dominion, when we bow to his will, we find rest for our souls and “call the sabbath a delight!”